By Stephen Basdeo, a writer and historian based in Leeds, UK. This post—a précis of research undertaken by David Black—highlights how a young revolutionary woman in mid-Victorian Britain brought the teachings of Georg W.F. Hegel to England in the Democratic Review (n.b. it is not my intention to critique Macfarlane’s views on Hegel but to summarise them; indeed, as those acquainted with Hegel’s works will see, Macfarlane takes the basics of his ideas but adapts them to her own purposes).
Helen Macfarlane’s Early Life
Helen Macfarlane was born at Barrhead, near Glasgow, on 25 September 1818. The daughter of a calico-printing factory owner named, George Macfarlane (1760–1842) and his wife Helen Stenhouse (b.1772), she was the youngest of eleven children and might have looked forward to a life of ease as a member of a prosperous middle-class family.
But a financial storm was brewing—by 1842 Macfarlane’s factory could not keep up with the more technologically advanced competition in the calico manufacturing sector, and his mill went under. The family lost the house and all their possessions. Helen’s prospects of a ‘good’ middle-class Victorian marriage were lost forever. The future that awaited her was that of a governess.
Yet by 1848 Macfarlane was in Austria and was an eye witness to the revolution in Vienna that occurred in that year, as she testified herself in the Democratic Review that
“For me the most joyful of all spectacles possible in these times is the one which … I enjoyed extremely at Vienna, in March 1848, i.e. ‘an universal tumbling of impostors…’ For it amounts to this, that men are determined to live no longer in lies… Ca ira!”
Just why she was on the continent at that point is unknown—she may have been visiting her brother who was a student in Geissen in Germany.
Macfarlane’s Return to England
By 1850 Macfarlane had returned to England and took up residence in Burnley. She became an associate of the Red Republicans—a (pre-Marxist) group of socialists among who advocated for universal suffrage, the nationalisation of all farmlands and factories, and the establishment of a national system of education.
When Harney founded his Democratic Review in 1849, Macfarlane began writing for him under the pseudonym of Howard Morton, and later joined Harney’s Red Republican magazine where she wrote under her own name.
Macfarlane’s Interpretation of Hegel
Macfarlane has been identified as the author of at least thirteen articles in the Democratic Review (and she was probably the author of several more which were left unsigned). One of the most interesting articles that Macfarlane wrote was her summary of Hegel’s Philosophy of History, which was titled ‘Remarks on the Times’.
Briefly put, Hegel argued that the aim of all of human history was
“the development of the self-consciousness of spirit, which is the self-consciousness of freedom.”
Taking her cue from Hegel, Macfarlane had a similar philosophy. Her opening argument is that
“Democracy is an idea, which is still seeking an adequate mode of expression: a soul in want of a body; an ideal, hitherto deemed a chimera—but which is rapidly tending towards a realization in the phenomenal world.”
The Idea of Freedom
To the Red Republicans, the word ‘democracy’ encompassed, not only our modern-day definition of it (the right of people to choose their—often rich or aristocratic—rulers for themselves), but also the rule of the Democracy—that is to say, the final ascendancy of the working classes over the oppressor classes (which Macfarlane in other places called ‘the landlords and moneylords’ or ‘aristocracy and moneyocracy’).
Democracy (which Hegel would have called freedom) is an idea, then, that was always, at different points of world history, seeking expression. It revealed itself in different ways to different people, and was always in tension with each era’s prevailing political system.
Shortly after her opening statement Macfarlane makes explicit reference to Hegel:
“Democracy, the Idea of the 19th century,” is a great and most welcome fact. This idea has revealed itself at different times, and in different ways. I find it has assumed four forms, which, at first sight, are very unlike each other, yet they are only different ways of expressing the same thing, or, to speak strictly, they are the necessary moments in the development, or unfolding, of the idea: and the last of these forms pre-supposes the foregoing ones … these forms are, the religion taught by the divine Galilean Republican—the Reformation of the 16th century—the German philosophy from Immanuel Kant to Hegel, and the Democracy of our own times.”
The Proletarian Nazarene
Essentially in Macfarlane’s reading of Hegel, the idea that all humans were “free” from birth (and by extension, should be able to choose their own leaders), took various forms at different points in human history.
Jesus Christ, who many early socialists looked to as a ‘brother proletarian,’ or, ‘socialist of socialists’ as Louis Blanc called him, taught men for the first time that they were free and equal before God. To Jesus, it did not matter if a Roman was a slave, he could still be free and equal before God.
Jesus’s ideology was in tension with the ideology of the Roman and Jewish ruling classes, who held that only some men are free, while the rest are slaves.
Reformation and Enlightenment
Macfarlane went on to explain that the “pure” ideals of Christianity were locked in a struggle, not only against the Roman political system but against Greek and Roman pantheism. A compromise was reached: the establishment of the Church, which soon became despotic.
Here again there was a tension between the Christ-like ideals it espoused and how the Church operated in practice, endorsing feudalism and slavery. It took the Reformation to make a partial attempt to “rediscover” the pure “proletarian” ideals of Christ and re-assert the rights of individuals.
Yet human intelligence (the achievements of mankind as a whole) expanded beyond the limits of medieval church symbols, and the idea that individuals had rights needed to be further refined, and this is where the early modern continental philosophers came in who reasoned, for the first time, that all men were born free and were rational beings.
Thus the Reformation
“Prepared the way for the German philosophy; for the unique and profound investigation into the nature of man—which, conducted by a phalanx of great thinkers, was terminated by Hegel … the result of [his] investigation was the democratic idea.”
Theory and Practice
The idea of freedom, then, needed to be realised in theory before it is put into practice and in Macfarlane’s view the German thinkers, Kant and Hegel, were the “apostles” or fathers of the democratic movements that, when Macfarlane was writing, were shaking the foundations of European political and social systems—the Chartists in England, the Red Republicans in France, the German Revolutionaries of 1848, and the followers of Major Kossuth.
When Kant and Hegel’s ideas surrounding freedom were finally realised in practice, mankind would know what it truly meant to be free—this would also have the effect of reconstituting society at large.
It was the duty of all true democrats to help their fellow men realise the ideal of freedom, just like Jesus did (through tracts, preaching, mass meetings) and convince the people to take power to themselves and rebuild society. Mankind must rid itself of the landlords and moneylords, the aristocrats and moneyocrats who in spite of the growth of the realisation of freedom, still sought in the nineteenth century to deny mankind their natural rights.
Thus the Democracy (the people as a whole who have come to the realisation that they can be free) should have one aim:
“Our end is the Organisation of Labour and the final establishment of pure Democracy; our means, the complete destruction of the Past through a critique of Pure Reason. The organisation of Labour, upon the associative principle, is our aim, because we will make it possible for the toiling millions of England to live in a state more befitting human beings than a continual hopeless alternation of toil and starving … Vive la Republique, Democratique et Sociale!
The Rise of the Hobgoblin
From the preceding quote, it should come as no surprise that Macfarlane was captivated with a small pamphlet published in 1848 by two hitherto obscure German writers, so much so that Macfarlane decided to translate their work.
The first few lines of her translation read:
“A frightful hobgoblin stalks throughout Europe. We are being haunted by a ghost, the ghost of communism.”
Those words are from Marx and Engels’s Communist Manifesto. Macfarlane was in fact the person to translate the text into English, and her translation appeared in the Red Republican magazine in November 1850.
Black, David. Helen Macfarlane: A Feminist, Revolutionary Journalist, and Philosopher in Mid-Nineteenth-Century England (Lexington Books, 2004)
———ed., Helen Macfarlane: Red Republican. Essays, articles and her translation of the Communist Manifesto (Unkant Publishers, 2014)
Evans, Lawrence [online], ‘Hegel on History’, Philosophy Now, accessed 16 July 2021. Available at: